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Against Virtual Communion

By George Sumner

Since the rubrics clearly prohibit remotely consecrating bread and wine, the question of virtual communion is not one which could lead to immediate action, which is for the best. We can therefore have a dispassionate discussion of it.

First of all, a pandemic is the ultimate in outliers. It is a precedent for nothing. We do the the best we can to maintain our common life, within the bounds of our practice (with a bit of elasticity), but we also try to disrupt as little as possible in the longer term.

Second, the objection based on “materiality” stands (for previous discussion of this issue on Covenant, see here and here). The Eucharist claims the real presence of Christ in this event of really blessing and consuming real elements by a real (bodily) congregation. This does not mean there are not other ways to hear the Gospel and pray. In our era of all-Eucharist-all-the-time, we should not absorb everything into the sacrament.

Third, before we knew anything of Covid19, there were reasons to worry about the effects of technology on the Church. The Church may be a last bastion of a fully embodied anthropology, a counter-culture of people really present one to another, in a time when machines come to dominate speaking, shopping, politicking, entertainment, etc. I thought the ecclesial ditch to die in would be virtual Average Sunday Attendance; I didn’t foresee this.

Previously I wrote about the phenomenon of “Homo digitalis.” Talk about ghosts in the machine! (Not to mention how even now the social media and internet are clogged with lies and depravity).

So, hurrah for technology’s usefulness in helping to hold us together in this difficult hour. And hurrah for our congregations’ creativity in using it. But this pestilence too shall pass, and we need to make sure in the meantime we do no harm to our more normative theology and practice.

The Rt. Rev. Dr. George Sumner is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas.

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